‘Sylvia’ summons queer horror comedy at its comedic best
Something refreshing while we wait for summer movie season to arrive
There was a time when the words “straight-to-video” carried an unspoken implication of mediocrity, at best – but that was before a massive shift in the film industry, accelerated but perhaps not solely driven by the pandemic and the need it created for “watch at home” options – changed the game when it comes to judging a movie by its viewing format.
Consider “Summoning Sylvia,” a campy horror comedy that made its VOD premiere on April 7, in which all but one of the characters (two if you count dead people) are queer. It’s safe to say that it’s definitely a “niche” film, and despite being granted a brief-and-perfunctory theatrical run – presumably, like most non-mainstream movies of similar ilk, for the purposes of awards consideration – it’s not the kind of thing that might have gotten a wide big screen release at any point in the history of the American film industry. At first assessment, it might seem like a rollicking, raunchy and VERY gay piece of fluff; it’s all those things, but it has a lot more imagination and ambition behind it than meets the eye from scrolling past the trailer on social media.
Written and directed by Wesley Taylor and Alex Wyse, it’s an absurdly farcical yet genuinely hair-raising adventure in which Larry (Travis Coles), on the eve of being “gay-married,” is kidnapped by his groomsmen (Frankie Grande, Troy Iwata, and Noah J. Ricketts) for a bachelor party weekend at a country house in upstate New York, reputedly haunted by the ghost of a woman (the titular Sylvia, played by Veanne Cox) who murdered her own son (Camden Garcia) before being killed herself by an angry mob 100 years ago. Naturally, the queer quartet tries to unravel this century-old mystery by holding a séance, but the unforeseen addition to the mix of future brother-in-law Harrison (Nicholas Logan) – an ex-soldier with clearly antisocial and possibly homophobic personality issues – turns their tongue-in-cheek party game into a terrifying-yet-hilarious battle with the dark forces that seemingly rule over their fashionably rustic Airbnb.
It’s all very silly, of course, and anyone hoping for hardcore horror featuring malevolent ghosts and demonic possession are likely to be sorely disappointed; what’s surprising is how often it manages to supersede its silliness to deliver more than just the occasional cheap jump scare, and how well it frames its madcap scenario through a perspective that, incredibly, makes everything feel a lot weightier – or at least, more meaningful – than its campy comedic tone invites us to expect.
Some background on the film’s creators quickly offers a possible explanation for why that might be so. Taylor and Wyse, Broadway stalwarts both onstage and off, come at their material from a theatrical tradition that includes such absurdist queer playwrights as Joe Orton, Christopher Durang, Paul Rudnick, and others whose work use pointedly nonsensical contrivances to poke fun at socially relevant themes that might otherwise not be so amusing. Their film is rife with that same surrealist spirit, while still evoking the old-fashioned pleasures of such humorously macabre classics as “Blithe Spirit” or “Arsenic and Old Lace” – a good-natured blending of styles that goes a long way toward opening audiences up to its familiar premise. To put it more simply, if a bit poetically, there is an unmistakable method to the madness.
If references to 20th-century absurdist theater don’t ring a bell for you, it might be more appropriate to draw parallels from a cinematic angle; it’s impossible not to notice how strongly “Summoning Sylvia” evokes the non-stop, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks comedic milieu of filmmakers like Mel Brooks, whose anything-for-a-laugh style never got in the way of a respectful and proficient cinematic style nor precluded the possibility for scathingly candid cultural commentary, or even the self-aware “meta” sensibilities of someone like Guillermo Del Toro, whose understanding of horror is deeply intertwined with an recognition of the genre’s potential for underscoring fear with a humanistic streak that makes it a vehicle for transcendence as well as for terror.
Still, such comparisons don’t quite capture the exact nature of this unabashedly nonsensical movie’s charms – it’s neither as anarchic as a Mel Brooks film nor as melancholy as a Del Toro – but they approximate the space in which it stakes its claim; it should be obvious to any seasoned film buff that “Summoning Sylvia” carefully aligns its supposedly otherworldly sense of menace with an all-too-realistic fear of violent homophobia, and that its insinuation of an apparently angry straight man with seemingly toxic views about sexuality and gender as a potential existential threat to its queer band of determined-but-daffy protagonists has a lot more significance than a mere plot device. To put it simply, it’s a movie that never tries too hard to drive home its allegorical story arc, which it highlights as much by sending up as by serious contemplation, but it also never tries to pretend that it doesn’t have one, and in serving both ends at once it succeeds in proving that a film can be purely entertaining and still have the kind of substance that keeps it from being simply a guilty pleasure.
It should go without saying that much of its success comes from the ability of its cast to walk the thin line required of them by the material. Though the film’s most recognizable star is arguably out Tony-winning actor Michael Urie, who delivers little more than a cameo performance – albeit a solid and likable one – as Larry’s husband-to-be, it’s up to the rest of the cast to do the heavy lifting; they’re more than capable, with Coles standing out as a strong lead in a diverse ensemble of players, and Grande surpassing expectation with a show-stealing turn as the fiercely femme and unapologetically over-the-top Nico, whose self-proclaimed witchiness and unrestrained libido play a big part in making Larry’s bachelor party a weekend to be remembered, for better or for worse. Even Sean Grandillo, whose short appearance as an unexpected interloper into the weekend’s events adds a memorable dash of winking, trope-twisting humor to the program, makes an impression on the strength of his sheer, joyful goofiness alone.
All of this is not to say that “Summoning Sylvia” is the kind of cinematic masterpiece that makes a whole industry stand up and take notice; while its unpretentiousness allows us to absorb its higher points without heavy-handed obviousness, its messaging is hardly anything new. Even so, any movie that addresses the specter of homophobia – especially in an age when even the comparatively innocent phenomenon of drag, given suitably elevated status by Taylor and Wyse in a highly entertaining climactic sequence, is under attack from bigots desperate to turn the tide of growing queer acceptance – is a welcome addition to our must-see list, and this one manages to do so without sacrificing its sense of humor or its commitment to entertaining us.
It may not change your life, but it’s sure to provide a fun 75 minutes’ worth of viewing pleasure – and that’s more than enough to earn our recommendation for any queer movie fan looking for something new and refreshing while we wait for the summer movie season to arrive.
Summer brings major dose of new queer film, TV content
New book awash in crazy action, humor, and superheroes
There’s no season quite like the summer when it comes to having fun outdoors, for obvious reasons – but unless you want a nasty sunburn, you need to spend time indoors, too. Luckily, the Blade is here for our readers with our picks for the most promising new movies and shows coming to our various screens over the coming season, so you’ll have something good to watch while you’re recovering from all that shiny Vitamin D.
THE NEIGHBOR (Limited theaters 6/2, Digital & DVD 6/6) – From Italian director Pasquale Marrazzo comes this fresh-from-the-festivals LGBTQ drama about two young men who begin an intense romance after having a terrifying experience together, and the parental hate and homophobia that comes to light in the face of their newfound love. It sounds grim, but it comes with a string of strong reviews to recommend it and acclaimed performances from Michelle Costabile and Jacopo Costantini, plus a score by prizewinning composer Teho Teardo (“House of Gucci,” “Il Divo”).
HORSEPLAY (Limited theaters 6/2, Digital & DVD 6/13) – Another queer LGBTQ film fest darling, this one a thriller from Argentina, about a group of friends at a summer get together; their hard-partying fun leads to horseplay (naturally), which (also naturally) stirs up other issues – and submerged secrets, feelings, and jealousies begin to push tensions toward a violent breaking point. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Marco Berger and described as “a boundary-pushing look at masculinity, homophobia and sexuality,” it stars Bruno Giganti, Agustín Machta, Franco De La Puente, and Ivan Masliah Taekwondo. It also looks very sexy, which makes us look forward to it that much more.
THE IDOL (HBO, 6/4) – “Euphoria” creator Dan Levinson is also behind this much-anticipated new series, which stars Lily-Rose Depp as a rising pop star who falls under the spell a Svengali-like self-help guru played by none other than The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye). It also stars queer fan favorite and “Schitt’s Creek” co-creator Dan Levy, along with Jane Adams, Hari Nef, and Troye Sivan, among others. Already controversial thanks to a behind-the-scenes whistleblower who told Rolling Stone that it “borders on sexual torture porn,” you can bet there will be a lot of eyes – queer and otherwise – streaming this one.
ALL MAN: THE INTERNATIONAL MALE STORY (Digital, 6/6) – For a certain generation of gay men, the words “International Male” evoke memories of rushing home from high school to grab that precious sexy catalogue out of the mailbox before their parents got home. Now, this long-awaited documentary – which was an Official Selection at both the Tribeca and Outfest Film Festivals – finally arrives to bring the story of this iconic touchstone of queer history to light, by charting “the journey of an unlikely band of outsiders” who “designed one of the most sought-after mail-order catalogues of the ‘70s and ‘80s, forever changing the way men look at themselves, at each other, and how the world would look at them.” Matt Bomer, Simon Doonan, and Carson Kressley are among the participating talking heads, but the real attraction is the wealth of archival imagery showing some of the most outrageously gay (and irresistible) fashion ever created.
BLUE JEAN (In Theaters, 9/9) – UK filmmaker Georgia Oakley won high praise for this 2022 slice-of-history drama, now making its official U.S. debut. Set in 1988 England as the conservative Thatcher government is poised to pass stigmatizing legislation against gays and lesbians, it features a powerhouse performance from Rosy McEwen as a gym teacher whose closeted double life is threatened by the arrival of a new student. BAFTA-nominated, this one won the Venice Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award and four British Independent Film Awards, making it both a heavy-hitter and a must-see.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (FX, 6/13) – The popular vampire mockumentary – along with its breakout star, queer fan favorite Harvey Guillén – returns for a fifth season.
JAGGED MIND (Hulu, 6/15) – Directed by Kelley Kali and inspired by her own short film “First Date”, this feature-length queer thriller follows a woman (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) who, plagued by blackouts and strange visions, finds herself stuck in a series of time loops that may or may not be connected to her mysterious new girlfriend (Shannon Woodward). This one will have its world premiere at the American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach the day ahead of its streaming drop.
AND JUST LIKE THAT… (Max, 6/22) – The Samantha-less reboot of “Sex and the City” brings back the rest of the scandalous cadre for a second season.
EVERY BODY (In theaters, 6/30) – Julie Cohen directed this revelatory doc, which investigates the lives of intersex people, telling the stories of three individuals who have risen above childhood shame, secrecy, and non-consensual surgeries to thrive as adults after coming out as their authentic selves; it also weaves in a “stranger-than-fiction” tale of medical abuse, told in exclusive footage from the NBC News archives, which helps shed some light on the modern-day treatment of intersex people. We are definitely on board for anything that brings visibility to one of the most invisible sectors of our community – especially when it also aims to reduce stigma.
THEATER CAMP (In theaters, 7/14) – Sure to be a big draw for film fans who also love musical theater, this new movie from co-directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman is an original comedy starring Tony-winner Ben Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”) opposite Gordon as a BFF pair of instructors at the rundown titular institution, who join forces with their loyal production manager (Noah Galvin, Platt’s real-life boyfriend) to rescue it from the clueless tech-bro (Jimmy Tatro) that has been brought in to run it. How? Why, with a musical, of course! Written by Platt, Gordon, Galvin, and Leiberman, it also stars Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edebiri, Owen Thiele, Alan Kim, Alexander Bello, Bailee Bonick, Kyndra Sanchez, Donovan Colan, Vivienne Sachs, Quinn Titcomb, Caroline Aaron, and the always hilarious Amy Sedaris. Sign us up.
BARBIE (In theaters, 7/21) – Let’s face it, this wickedly campy-looking, over-the-top comedy from the brilliant Greta Gerwig is probably going to be the film of the year – at least for a solid percentage of the queer audience, who are certain to be passing the popcorn on opening weekend as they watch Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken visit the real world together. And since collections have always been part of the “Barbie” game, Gerwig’s satirical joyride offers an assortment of other Kens and Barbies, including Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Ncuti Gatwa, and Scott Evans as Ken, Hari Nef, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Dua Lipa, Emma Mackey, Ana Cruz Kayne, Sharon Rooney, Alexandra Shipp, and Nicola Coughlan. Truthfully, if they throw in a Barbie camper set, we will be in heaven.
KOKOMO CITY (In theaters, 7/28) – Lena Waithe executive produced this “wildly entertaining and refreshingly unfiltered” documentary that follows the lives of four Black transgender sex workers in Atlanta and New York City. Winner of Sundance’s NEXT Innovator Award and NEXT Audience Awards, it gives its quartet of subjects ample opportunity to spill the tea on their profession, and they do not hold back. As a bonus, it’s the directorial debut of producer/singer/songwriter D. Smith, who made history as the first trans woman cast on a primetime unscripted TV show.
HEARTSTOPPER (Netflix, 8/3) – The eagerly awaited return of Nick and Charlie (Kit Connor and Joe Locke), the most irresistibly adorable pair of young teen boyfriends ever, for a second season of this beloved UK series that will likely have everyone immediately clamoring for a third.
ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (Hulu, 8/8) – Another returning favorite, the third season of this deliciously charming confectionary blend of characters, comedy and crime podcasts comes with the addition of a new premium ingredient – Meryl Streep (real, not imitation) – for extra delectability. Who could resist?
RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE (Prime, 8/11) – “Heartstopper” fans who have binged through the new season in one sitting and are hungry for more might find a suitable fix when this Greg Berlanti-produced, Matthew Lopez-directed film adaptation of nonbinary author Casey McQuiston’s YA bestseller drops a week later. It’s an implausible but infectiously sweet rom-com that imagines a same-sex romance between America’s First Son and the heir to the British throne, with young newcomers Taylor Zakhar Pérez and Nicholas Galitzine taking on the leading roles; also starring are Clifton Collins Jr., Stephen Fry, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Hilson, Ellie Bamber, Aneesh Sheth, and Polo Morín, but we are frankly most excited to see Uma Thurman playing America’s first female president. Let’s hope that plot detail isn’t such an implausible premise.
Out director brings queer perspective to mainstream with help from DeNiro
‘About My Father’ feels like a screwball comedy from the Golden Age
In all the discussion about the need for more and better queer inclusion in mainstream Hollywood movies, we sometimes overlook the trailblazers who are already working in the system, bringing their queerness – and the perspective that comes with it – into the mix even when the story isn’t queer at all.
Take, for example, Laura Terruso, a queer director who, only eight years out from film school, already has three feature-length releases under her belt, and whose fourth – “About My Father,” starring popular comedian Sebastian Maniscalco and screen icon Robert DeNiro – opens on May 26. In it, Maniscalco plays the son of a Sicilian immigrant hairdresser (DeNiro, of course) who reluctantly agrees when his fiancée (Leslie Bibb) convinces him to bring his very working-class father to a weekend getaway with her very wealthy eccentric family at their lavish summer estate. Needless to say, it’s a culture clash waiting to happen; but when it does, the complications that ensue are mostly comedic. You can’t get much more mainstream than that.
That’s not a bad thing. “About My Father” is a refreshing, feel-good comedy with a uniformly excellent ensemble cast that seems to be having the time of their lives. And while it gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between his obstinately independent working class dad and the amusingly tone deaf attitudes of his goofily eccentric in-laws-to-be, it remains good-natured enough to show us the flawed, funny, perfectly relatable human beings behind the stereotypes on both sides of the equation (even Kim Cattrall’s staunchly conservative matriarch) even as we laugh at them.
Indeed, it feels more than a little nostalgic, and — as the Blade found out when we sat down to talk to Terruso about being a queer female director at the helm of a mainstream Hollywood feature — that’s not an accident.
Our conversation is below.
BLADE: Your movie feels like a screwball comedy from the Golden Age. Was that deliberate?
LAURA TERRUSO: I’m so glad you picked up on that. That was a huge part of my vision for the film. The work of Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder — those are some of my favorite movies, and I really tried to incorporate the themes, even some of the visuals. I particularly love Depression-era comedies, and I really look to them a lot for inspiration, because I feel like the time we live in right now is not dissimilar from that time, in terms of what’s going on.
BLADE: Part of the similarity also has to do with the way you poke fun at the characters – especially the one-percenters – without being mean-spirited or angry.
TERRUSO: That’s something that’s very important to me. I want to make kind comedies. I feel like nothing dates a comedy more than unkindness. The humor should come from the characters, and the situations, not from insults or ridicule – that stuff is just so tired, you know? – and I wanted this to be a film that everyone could love, that everyone could see themselves in and enjoy.
BLADE: Do you think that’s because you’re coming at it from a queer perspective? Even though the movie isn’t a “queer” movie, it’s certainly relatable for queer audiences with its story about trying to fit in a world where you don’t belong. And there are a few nods to the queer audience, too, like a certain celebrity cameo we won’t give away, and that flash-mob wedding proposal near the top of the film.
TERRUSO: Yes! And it was important to me to find real queer actors and dancers for that scene – which we did. [Laughing] In Mobile, Alabama, of all places. But definitely, as a queer filmmaker, I feel like I’m bringing my perspective to the work. Even if it’s not themed in that way, I approach everything I do with that worldview in mind.
BLADE: That begs the question: as someone who is on the “inside” of the system, how do you think mainstream Hollywood is doing when it comes to queer inclusion?
TERRUSO: There’s a lot of work to be done, but I think it all presents opportunity for us to tell our stories – because they haven’t been told yet.
For instance, for my last film, a big studio movie called “Work It,” there was a little bit of a battle with the original studio attached to the project, because they didn’t want Keiynan Lonsdale to play an antagonist – they were like, ‘Oh, he should be the best friend!’ Fortunately, Netflix came in and took over that production, and let us cast Keiynan the way we wanted. It worked beautifully, and people loved it – and, of course Keiynan l both loved it.
BLADE: It’s ironic that there’s an over-cautiousness now after all those years of villainizing us on the screen.
TERRUSO: There’s this beautiful book called “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado, a queer author, and there’s a section where she talks about the trope of “queer villainy,” and how incredibly important it is because it’s a part of our humanity – if we’re only ever playing ‘the best friend’ or one of those other “safe” tropes, it’s not really a full portrait of who we are.
That’s why I think it’s important for queer people to work in the mainstream, because those kinds of conversations, left in the hands of people not in the community, would always be going the way of the “best friend”. We want more nuance in our movies, and we can only do it by infiltrating the system in this way.
BLADE: What do you think is the most important thing that Hollywood needs to work on when it comes to telling our stories on the screen?
TERRUSO: I think the question that studio heads need to ask themselves when making a decision like that is, “Who’s telling the story?” If you have a queer director and a queer actor and they are saying “this is what we want,” trust them. If not, then maybe you can question it, but looking at who is telling the story and the point of view of the artists is so important to the nuance of this conversation.
BLADE: One last question: Was it great working with DeNiro?
TERRUSO: He’s an absolute legend for a reason, incredible to work with. And he saw that I had a real personal relationship to the material – which Sebastian co-wrote with his writing partner, Austin Earle – because my mother and Sebastian’s father are both Sicilian immigrants, who came to this country around the same time. When I read the script, I was like, “I have to direct this film!”
I find that sometimes the beauty of comedy is that you can heal wounds – you can make right things that maybe in life were left unresolved. My mom and I have had our challenges – when I came out, it was tough, I mean, she’s a Sicilian mom – but she’s so supportive now, and I feel so fortunate I was able to write a love letter to her with this film.
Besides, now I’ve introduced her to Robert DeNiro, which is basically like introducing a gay person to Beyonce, so I win. I’m a Black Sheep no more!
Genres blend and genders bend in ‘Broadway’
Another example of VOD as a platform for smart, artfully crafted films
To read Greek writer/director Christos Massalas’s comments in the “official” notes included within the press material for his debut feature film – “Broadway,” which opened a limited theatrical run on April 26 and drops on DVD and VOD platforms May 16 – is to wonder what kind of abstract, experimental, hallucinatory vision he must have been following as he crafted it.
Describing the gestation process for his movie as he experienced it within his own mind, Massalas says that “The colors were saturated, and the feelings were sometimes red, sometimes blue, and sometimes they smelled of gasoline. There were dancers, there were thieves, and Athens was a sunlit stage where monuments of the 20th century stood glorious and rusty.” All that sounds very raw and haphazard, and perhaps more than a little pretentious, like a fledgling author’s ambitious-but-unfocused vision for the “Great American Novel” (or, in this case, the “Great Greek Novel”) they are passionately planning to write.
Yet incredibly, it’s a description that captures to perfection the essence of the film he crafted from that vision, and perhaps even conveys more useful information about it than any plot synopsis might ever be able to do.
Nevertheless, simply as a matter of form, we’ll venture to offer one. “Broadway” is the story of a band of performers, pickpockets, and small-time thieves who form a little family of outcasts living in an abandoned entertainment complex – the “Broadway” of the title – while putting on shows in the streets and stealing unbeknownst from the audiences who gather to watch them. It’s told from the perspective of Nelly (Elsa Lekakou), a strip club dancer on the run from her wealthy and controlling family who is drawn into the group by its charismatic mastermind, Markos (Stathis Apostolou), and finds a heaven from her “pitbull” of a stepfather and the gang of thugs he employs to keep her in check.
Nelly, however, is no naïve victim in need of rescue – though she claims to be accustomed to playing that role – but a resourceful and headstrong young woman more than capable of surviving by her own wits in the mean streets of an economically-ravaged Athens. Her talents as a performer quickly make her invaluable to the ragtag cadre under her new Markos’ autocratic reign, and though she assumes and accepts the special status afforded to her as lover and muse to her new protector, she also wins the loyalty and affection of her new cohorts as easily and completely as she gains the trust of Lola, the allegedly vicious and rabid monkey they keep locked in a cage as a sort of unofficial and unappreciated mascot.
Lola is not the only confined member of the Broadway clan, however; a mysterious, badly beaten fugitive named Jonas (Foivos Papadopoulos) is being kept in a storage room, locked away as he recovers from his injuries and hides from the powerful underworld kingpin who wants him dead. As he returns to health, his presence becomes a dangerous liability – until Nelly hits upon an idea to keep him hidden in plain sight by turning him into Barbara, her partner in a two-woman dance act and the newest member of their troupe.
From there, “Broadway” launches into an ambitiously sweeping narrative that feels like equal parts film noir and Charles Dickens as it takes us into a colorful and morally ambiguous underworld, created by economic disparity and filled with shadowy figures and secret alliances, then bursting improbably forth into a gender-bending musical before finally moving into Hitchcock territory for a thrilling third act “caper” scenario made even more suspenseful by the shifting loyalties between its leading players. We don’t like spoilers, but we’ll just say that the question of whether there is “honor among thieves” is key to the story’s endgame.
Massalas, a London-educated Greek filmmaker with an impressive catalogue of short films, has scored a long list of prizes at international festivals including Cannes, AFI Film Fest, and
Locarno, where in 2016 he was selected as one of the most promising new directors in the world. For his feature debut, he received support from the Greek Film Center and the Sundance Institute; with that kind of artistic pedigree behind it, it’s no surprise that “Broadway” is a deeply, almost ecstatically cinematic piece of work.
Richly visual, it evokes filmic echoes not only from the influences cited above, but from directors like Fellini, Jodorowsky, Godard, and Marcel Carné – whose epic theatrical romance “Les Enfants du Paradis” seems almost baked into its core. Yet while it may contain plenty of nods, intentional or otherwise, to past masters of the medium, it never feels stodgy or over-reverent, and audiences coming at Massalas’ movie from a less scholarly perspective will find plenty to appreciate in his own bold, artfully eclectic style – and everyone is sure to approve of his abilities as a storyteller, which enable him to pack an entire epic’s worth of plot, complete with nuanced layers and deeply-drawn character development, into a just-over-90-minute movie without ever making it feel rushed.
Yet even with all that art packed into it, the thing that makes “Broadway” a standout entry in the VOD film market is its queerness. Not only does it hinge on a cis male character donning drag, it also features a gay couple (Rafael Papad and Salim Talbi) in significant roles as members of the gang. More important, perhaps, it never uses its potentially offensive “man-hiding-out-in-drag” premise to get cheap laughs or set him up for humiliation or ridicule. On the contrary, it quickly becomes clear that Barbara is more than a disguise for Jonas; she’s an empowering influence, and he blossoms with the transformation. Is he straight or gay? Trans, gender fluid, or just a drag queen? The movie never really tells us, and in fact seems to disregard it as irrelevant. It’s an ambiguity that feels comfortable rather than challenging, and makes his romance with Nelly – along with the steamy sex scenes that come with it – somehow even more hot.
There are a few quibbles that could be made about Massalas’ film; there’s some heavy-handed foreshadowing that makes a few of its twists more predictable than they might be, and it sometimes wallows a bit too much in its symbolism. Still, in context these elements are part of the cinematic ride he takes us on, and he provides enough unexpected surprises in other areas to make up for any perceived missteps along the way. With a universally excellent cast, grounded by Lekakou’s solid, confident turn at the center of it all, “Broadway” is yet another example of the growing promise of VOD as a platform for the kind of smart, sophisticated, artfully crafted film content that just doesn’t get shown in movie theaters in post-pandemic America.
That said, “Broadway” would undoubtedly look great on the big screen, and if you’re lucky enough to be in a place where it’s on one, it’s worth making the effort. If not, don’t let that stop you – it looks pretty great on the small screen, too.
Weisz shines twice in gender-swapped ‘Dead Ringers’
A tour de force dual performance from under appreciated actress
Fans of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s 1988 film “Dead Ringers” – starring Jeremy Irons in the dual role of Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twin gynecologists with a fondness for drugs, a willingness to manipulate their patients into having sex with them, and a radical vision for the future of women’s reproductive medicine – are doubtless already aware of Amazon Prime’s new limited series adaptation, which dropped on April 21. Many of them, if not most, have probably already seen all six episodes.
For anyone else, however, it might feel like a perfectly reasonable question to ask why anyone might be drawn to a story with a premise as twisted, dark, and deeply disquieting as this one – but of course, those are the very things that make it irresistible.
The original “Dead Ringers” – which Cronenberg and screenwriter Norman Snider adapted from a novel (“Twins”) by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland – is considered a masterpiece of “body horror,” a sub-genre that plays on our instinctive fear of mutilation, deformity, or other such intrusive desecrations of our physical beings. It’s a brooding story of co-dependence and isolation, with Irons delivering two distinctively different but equally disturbing flavors of narcissistic amorality as the two brothers spiral away from the outside world into the private reality they’ve built around their obsessions and the unique advantages that come with being identical twins. At its essence, its biggest horrors are more psychological than visceral, and watching the slow-but-inevitable self-destruction that unspools from the Mantles’ insular and distorted perceptions is a painful but gripping journey that sticks with you in ways you wish it wouldn’t; still, there is a definite “gross-out” factor involved (the pair’s baroquely sinister, custom-designed gynecological tools are enough to make us cringe by the power of imagination alone) that lingers even longer, and makes the movie difficult to watch even for less squeamish viewers.
In Amazon’s updated reimagining of the story, the central narrative takes advantage of its long-form presentation to explore the twisted psychology of its twin protagonists – though that doesn’t feel like quite the right word, all things considered – and the fascination with body horror remains, but show developer and head writer Alice Birch changes almost everything else – starting with the gender of her two leading characters, though they still bear the same ambiguously androgynous names. It’s a bold transformation that might seem like a gimmick, at first, but quickly brushes past any skepticism to illuminate the story in a provocative new light – and we’re not just talking about the obvious lesbian implications inherent in the premise of female gynecologists seducing their own patients.
Now portrayed by Rachel Weisz, the Mantles are not merely successful, they are renowned, running their own clinic and pursuing their dream of opening a birthing center and research facility where they can help more women while developing new innovations in female fertility. Beverly, sweet-tempered and idealistic, is often at odds with the more aggressive and cynical Elliot, particularly over the ethics involved in achieving their various goals (such as accepting funding for their project from a Big Pharma billionaire or impersonating one another to trick a sexual conquest into bed), but they are nevertheless the center of each other’s lives. As in the film, it’s this closed-off interpersonal dynamic that leads them astray, severing them from the rest of the world and fueling their secretive, transgressive behavior.
Where the original’s observational focus was placed squarely on the twins, however, Birch and her creative crew open things up to take a wider view, and they waste no time in turning a critical and sometimes outrageously satirical eye toward the outside world.
These moments occasionally veer a little over the top, such as with an extended second-episode sequence in which a dinner party with potential donors becomes an almost Fellini-esque display of disconnected self-indulgence among the privileged elite, but on a more subtle level they help ally our sympathies with Beverly and Elliot. The world they move in is full of boldfaced arrogance, craven hypocrisy, tone-deaf pretension, and unapologetic greed; how can we not take their side, when it’s clear the medical establishment which they seek to upend deserves everything they can do to it and more?
Of course, their own motives are murky, too. Much is kept mysterious about the Mantles, with secrets doled out in small, sometimes cryptic revelations, and we are kept off balance by an unreliable narrative structure that isn’t always linear and frequently jumps from reality to imagination without making it quite clear which is which. We’re never sure if what we’re seeing is really happening – or when it’s happening, for that matter.
All of that goes a long way toward keeping us hooked into “Dead Ringers” as it goes further and further down its crooked path, and a few heavily-portioned moments of gore – much of it related to childbirth and the medical procedures that take place around it – certainly keep us on edge. Likewise, the gender-swapped reframing introduces a layer of feminism by challenging us with a depiction of women exploiting other women – almost all the characters who hold power are female – to facilitate what ultimately descends into a whirlpool of self-serving hedonism.
Yet as intriguing as all those ideas might be, they’re never as compelling as we think they are going to be. Even the queer aspects of the story feel a bit rote, though perhaps it’s refreshing that lesbian lead characters and depictions of lesbian sex are handled as if their queerness is “no big deal.” Nor does “Dead Ringers” ever really scare, though it does unsettle.
That’s because at its core, it’s a tale about identity, about two sides of a single personality caught in a never-ending struggle for domination. It would be simplistic to equate Bev and Elliot to “good” and “evil” sides of our nature, though there are definite echoes of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in their interlocked personas, but the conflict between them is primal, nonetheless, and that’s where the meat of the story lies. All the rest is seasoning.
Fortunately, Rachel Weisz – a criminally underrated actress, and we say this knowing she is an Oscar-winner – takes charge from the start, delivering a tour de force dual performance that is every bit the equal of Irons’ acclaimed turn in Cronenberg’s film while making both roles uniquely her own. Compelling, layered, likeable, monstrous, fragile, fierce, and always authentic, she holds our interest even when the story flags – as it occasionally does – and keeps us watching all the way.
Thanks to her, Amazon’s “Dead Ringers” confidently carves a place of its own. Is it scary? Maybe not as much so as Cronenberg’s original, but it has an appeal of its own and enough clinical gore to provide at least a few enjoyable jump scares.
In any case, neither version is as scary as the fact that the novel which was the basis for them both was itself based on the story of the Marcus twins, a pair of real-life twin gynecologists who died in an apparent suicide pact.
It’s enough to make you never trust a doctor again.
Remembering classic film after death of an unsung queer pioneer
Murray Melvin’s queer performance in ‘Taste of Honey’ proved groundbreaking
Last week, with the April 14 passing of English actor, director, and theater archivist Murray Melvin at the age of 90, the world lost a queer cinema icon.
If you feel bad for wondering, “Who’s that?”, don’t worry. Although the film with which he made his name – “A Taste of Honey,” directed by British New Wave filmmaker Tony Richardson – was an acclaimed and popular award-winner when it was released in 1961, it’s likely only known to the most ardent cinema buffs today, especially among younger generations; and though Melvin remained a familiar fixture of the London theater world and made several significant further film and television appearances, his fame outside the UK was limited – so you’re easily pardoned for not knowing who he was.
Yet while popular memory may have moved on from the era in which “A Taste of Honey” made waves on both sides of the Atlantic, its historical importance – not just as a milestone of queer inclusion on the screen, but as a seminal work in a major art-and-cultural movement – still looms large.
Based on a 1958 play by Shelagh Delaney, it was part of an aesthetic wave in Britain known as “Kitchen Sink Realism” (or alternatively, the “Angry Young Man” movement, though in this case both the writer and the lead character were female), which focused on the gritty lives and hardships of the working class to explore the social ills and inequities of British society. It centers on Jo, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who lives with her alcoholic single mother; after a brief romance with an itinerant Black sailor, she discovers she is pregnant, and moves out on her own with Geoffrey, an acquaintance who has been kicked out of his flat for being homosexual. For a time, they build a household together, taking care of each other as they face the uncertain realities of their grim working-class existence.
Delaney’s play had been a success in London – perhaps as much because of the controversy it stirred as despite it – before transferring to America for a Broadway production featuring Angela Lansbury and a very young Billy Dee Williams. Both stagings had been mounted by director Richardson, who by 1961 had established himself as a filmmaker and become a driving force in the rapidly evolving British cinema. He wanted to bring the play to the screen with the same candid and unsentimental attitude that had defined the stage version – and thanks to his status as Britain’s hottest young filmmaker, he was given free reign do it. He collaborated with Delaney on a screenplay adaptation that left the original work intact, complete with all its controversial elements, and underscored its slice-of-life realism by filming it entirely on location (the first British film to do so) in Salford, the rundown industrial district of Manchester where the story takes place.
To further distance his movie from any semblance of show biz artificiality, Richardson relied on the casting of Dora Bryan – whose popularity on British screens in “loose woman” roles through the 1950s made her an ideal choice to play Jo’s neglectful mother – as a bankable “name” and chose to cast mostly unknowns as his leading players. For the central role of Jo, he auditioned thousands of hopefuls before choosing Rita Tushingham – who said in a 2018 interview that her only previous acting experience had been as “the back legs of a horse” at a small playhouse in Liverpool – and settled on a student actor named Paul Danquah to play Jimmy, the other participant in his movie’s “shocking” interracial kiss.
None of these performers had been part of the play’s original cast, but when it came to one crucial role, Richardson turned to the actor who had originated it – Murray Melvin, who had won the part of Geoffrey while still a fledgling member of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where the play had first been staged. Seen today, it’s a remarkable performance, as fully authentic and unapologetically queer as one would expect from any modern actor, yet given in a time and place when to be “out” was to be shunned, stigmatized, and open to criminal prosecution as well. Hailed by a contemporary critic as “a miracle of tact and sincerity”, Melvin’s Geoff was an instant touchstone for countless gay audience members who never saw themselves represented on the screen, and the fact that he was presented in a positive light – without stereotype, cliché, or judgment – must have felt like nothing short of a miracle.
The film’s other performances are equally strong, of course. Tushingham won many accolades, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival (although, likely thanks to the film’s refusal to dilute its taboo subject matter, she was snubbed for recognition at the American Academy Awards), and went on to become something of an “It” girl in trans-Atlantic ‘60s cinema; Danquah is engaging and eminently likable as Jimmy, in a performance that is remarkably free of the racist trappings of the era and goes against the generic tropes that might otherwise cause audiences to view him with moral disdain; thanks to the chemistry he enjoys with Tushingham (not to mention the open-hearted treatment with which Richardson bestows upon their relationship), their interaction is never anything other than sweet and genuine, far from the exploitative or predatory nature with which it might have been endowed in other, more sensationalistic films of the day. As Helen, Jo’s boozy mom, Bryan makes a potentially hateful figure into someone we can understand, even if we can’t quite sympathize with her priorities or get behind her life choices.
Still, the performance of Murray Melvin is arguably the movie’s most significant legacy, and stands to this day as a testament to the power of cinema to speak truth to power – or at least, to promote empathy in the face of senseless bigotry. It’s a singular performance, a unique outlier from a time when queer experience was usually represented as deviant and dangerous when it wasn’t being ignored completely.
Like Tushingham, he won top acting honors at Cannes, but being named “Best Actor” was a short-lived triumph; his openly queer persona rendered him un-castable in most mainstream films of the era, and he was denied the stardom he might have enjoyed in a more enlightened time. Nevertheless, he would go on to enjoy a long and respected career, taking on key roles in films by Ken Russell (“The Devils”, “The Boy Friend”) and Stanley Kubrick (“Barry Lyndon”) and making prolific contributions in British theater and television. He would even eventually serve on the board of the Theatre Royal, where he had once painted sets out of a passion for the art itself, and become renowned as an archivist for the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop, which had been his entry into a rich and vibrant career as a stage and cinema artist.
These accomplishments, surely, gave Murray Melvin a sense of fulfillment. For the rest of us, his trailblazing, thrillingly queer presence in one of the most important films of the 1960s is more than enough cause to celebrate him.
‘Chrissy Judy’ is the drag buddy dramedy we all need right now
A refreshing look at something that allows itself simply to be queer
Drag is all over the news these days, and rightly so. After all, drag queens and kings are currently standing alongside their trans siblings on the front lines of the latest raging battle against the queer community by extremist bigots bent on legislating us all out of existence.
What’s particularly chilling about the current focus on drag culture as a nexus for all that – according to the haters – is “evil” about the queer community is that, in the last decades, it has experienced a surge in popularity that extends deep into the mainstream. This, of course, is why it’s being targeted now; with LGBTQ acceptance already the norm for a rising generation of Americans, the anti-LGBTQ conservatives are ramping up their efforts to push back the tide, and they are doing it in the most time-honored (and insidious) way possible – by positioning themselves as “protectors” of children and advancing the lie that being queer is somehow synonymous with being a pedophile.
Drag, of course, is an ancient art that has nothing to do with sex or sexuality; there’s something deeply human about it, an expression of some natural fascination with gender lines that, by acknowledging it, gives us permission to cross them – or, at the very least, to not take them so seriously. What most “outsiders” to the culture know about drag (and the people who do it) is limited to what can be seen in the performance – the “show” part of the equation, rather than the “human” – and that leaves a dangerous amount of room for projection and interpretation from anybody who thinks that any divergence from strictly drawn social norms is an existential threat.
That’s why the April 4 VOD release of “Chrissy Judy” feels particularly well-timed. The first feature film from writer, director, and star Todd Flaherty (also still enjoying a limited theatrical run) premiered at last year’s Provincetown Film Festival and went on to become a fan favorite at LA’s OutFest, New York’s NewFest, and multiple other queer film festivals across the circuit – and it’s easy to understand why. There have been plenty of movies about drag performers, but it’s hard to think of another one that gets past all the assumptions and clichés about drag (and queer life in general, for that matter) to connect with universally relatable experience as this one does.
Presented in black-and-white and overcoming its lower-budget indie production values with an evocative, elegantly cinematic aesthetic, it’s the story of Judy (Flaherty), who is determined to make a breakthrough into the New York drag scene as part of a two-queen act with his BFF and drag sister Chrissy (Wyatt Fenner) despite years of trying with little success. Now, on the eve of a potentially game-changing gig, Chrissy breaks the news that he’s leaving the act to move in with his Philadelphia boyfriend and settle down into a comfortable, domesticated life; forced to reinvent himself as an aging solo act (both onstage and off), Judy struggles to move forward, but he can’t quite let go of the severed connection that prevents him from discovering who he is capable of being on his own – and it doesn’t help that, without the balancing influence of Chrissy in his life, there’s nothing to prevent his “hot mess” appetites and impulses from getting in his way.
Most notably unique about “Chrissy Judy,” perhaps, is that it doesn’t treat its central relationship as if it were a “straight” one. It cannot be defined in strict terms of “friendship” or “love” but exists as a blend of the two, a complex mix of emotional attachments and desires that may not have an exact parallel in heterosexual experience. The nuances of this dynamic are played with exquisite delicacy by Flaherty and Fenner, whose chemistry together helps us all connect to our own memories of that one special friend who has remained close to our heart despite all the time, distance, and drama that may have ever come between us.
There are also excellent performances from Joey Taranto, whose charm helps to keep him likable as a potentially toxic new acquaintance that enters Judy’s orbit, and James Tison, who has a hilarious and memorable showcase role as “Samoa”, an old friend who invites him to a party and spouts buzzy-sounding mantras about self-manifestation at him.
It’s Flaherty’s movie, however, and he proves himself remarkably confidant and capable both as an actor and a filmmaker by delivering not just a fiercely authentic star turn that defies easy judgments and stereotypes, but a well-wrought, shrewdly observational movie about queer life that doesn’t pander to the sensibilities of the heteronormative world.
“Chrissy Judy” isn’t interested in presenting drag – or, again, queer experience in general – through a safe and sanitized filter; Judy (his “real” name is James, but he doesn’t let anyone call him that) is not exactly an inspirational figure, and his unapologetically hedonistic, self-indulgent behavior isn’t likely to win over any conservative homophobes. Flaherty’s writing and performance make no pretense of positive representation, and — just like its main character — his movie seems to delight in flaunting the very things that make the strait-laced crowd clutch their proverbial pearls.
That’s because it isn’t a movie made for them, though it’s certainly accessible enough for any non-homophobic viewer to connect with and even enjoy, but an authentic queer story told by a queer storyteller for a queer audience. There’s no need to be shy about its sex positivity, or ignore the importance of hook-up culture, or downplay the thrill of a sexually adventurous lifestyle by moralizing about promiscuity.
There’s also no need for it to mimic the tropes of hetero-centric cinema. Indeed, it derives considerable effect by setting up our expectations – learned from the nostalgic classics so long embraced by queer culture – only to undermine them, such as in a “meet-cute” romantic subplot that takes an awkward (and messy) twist, or any number of “big break” scenarios which fizzle out and go nowhere. These details play out with a good deal of humor, but they also underscore the ironic gap between the glossy sentimentality stirred by the film’s silver-toned cinematography and the world-wise savvy reflected in a plot largely driven by the unexpected curves that real life continually throws our way.
There are things about “Chrissy Judy” we could quibble over – do we really need that many shots of makeup and hair being applied and removed in mirrors to represent Judy’s continual evolution? Even so, it succeeds in getting past the “drag” of drag and telling a story about a core human experience – the changes in our loves and our lives as we continue to grow, and the challenges of holding onto a relationship as those changes pull us further apart – with tenderness, candor, empathy, and a warm-if-sometimes-caustic sense of humor. Best of all, it manages to do all this without sacrificing its own proud sense of LGBTQ identity.
In a time when so much queer entertainment is marked by a self-conscious effort to curate our community’s cultural experience for the world at large, it’s refreshing to see something that allows itself simply to be queer.
Master and student go to war in ‘The Tutor’
An unsatisfying thriller that fails to surprise
There was a time when horror movies weren’t taken nearly as seriously as those falling into the more so-called “legit” genres. Even the now-iconic early masterpieces from the silent and early sound eras were largely dismissed by critics as mere lowbrow entertainment enhanced by big studio production values, offering little but shock value and occasionally a clever script and a memorable performance or two.
Today, of course, there is widespread critical appreciation for the horror genre. In recent years, especially, the horror movie field has taken a sharp step up in terms of ambition and perceived legitimacy, with smart and multi-layered movies from artists like M. Night Shyamalan, Guillermo Del Toro, and Jordan Peele pushing boundaries and daring to let the genre wear its once-coded cultural subtext on its sleeve.
“The Tutor,” from sophomore feature director Jordan Ross and screenwriter Ryan King, clearly aims to be cut from that same cloth. It centers on Ethan (Garrett Hedlund), a professional academic coach whose ability to improve his pupils’ educational standing has placed him highly in demand among the rich and elite; despite his success, Ethan and his girlfriend Annie (Victoria Justice) – who are expecting their first child as they make plans for a future together – are struggling financially, making it impossible for him to refuse a secretive, under-the-table offer from an anonymous one-percenter who wants to hire him at a life-changing daily rate to tutor his teenage son Jackson (Noah Schnapp). However, true to the old adage about things that seem too good to be true, Ethan soon discovers that not all is as he expected; arriving at his new employer’s palatial estate, he finds it mostly deserted – save for a butler, a pair of vaguely insolent houseguests, and Jackson himself. Though his new student turns out to be a promising one, Ethan is disturbed by the teen’s almost obsessive fascination with his private life; despite his efforts to maintain a healthy distance, Jackson’s increasingly inappropriate overtures continue to escalate, and soon the boy’s intrusions threaten to sabotage the tutor’s life and career before he can even make sense of what’s behind them.
At first, Ross’s movie seems rooted in the familiar horror trope of the Damien-esque child of privilege, a creepy rich kid (in this case, a more grown-up version) whose demeanor suggests something evil lurking beneath his scrubbed and pampered exterior. However, as any horror fan knows, the more recognizable a trope may be, the less trustworthy it becomes – because if there’s anything a good horror story likes to do, it’s to pull the rug out from under us by turning our expectations on their ear with a clever, unforeseeable twist.
That makes it difficult to discuss “The Tutor” without giving away too much; though anyone who has watched a lot of films like it will find it easy to spot the sleights of hand Ross and King employ to misdirect their audience’s attention, it’s probably best to avoid the specific details of how the plot eventually unfolds. Instead, we can simply sum things up by calling it a cautionary tale about the dangers of judging a situation – or a person – based on appearance alone.
Citing Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher as his influences, Ross approaches his movie more as a psychological thriller than as outright horror; there’s little onscreen violence, and the tension is built more on uncertainty than fear. Nevertheless, he leans into the macabre with his brooding visual style, evoking a sense of dread. He also relies on a tight, streamlined narrative, moving with brisk and broad strokes through the preliminaries to get right into the business of unsettling us. In this way, he gets us invested quickly and manages to deliver a solid first half that makes up in creep factor for what it lacks in intricate plotting.
It also uses this not-so-slow build to introduce some intriguing themes. Most obviously, it plays with our cultural biases around money, class, and privilege, emphasizing both the extravagant luxury of Jackson’s home and the smallness of Ethan and Annie’s humble apartment, not to mention the teen’s disregard for boundaries and the thinly veiled, mocking arrogance of his dissolute cousins (Jonny Weston, Ekaterina Baker), who may be more tied up in Ethan’s dilemma than their seeming disinterest in him suggests.
Then there’s the undercurrent of queerness – another familiar horror trope – that manifests in Jackson’s apparent “infatuation” with his new teacher and becomes one more red flag for Ethan to dismiss and ignore if he wants to keep his lucrative gig. The casting of Schnapp – the young “Stranger Things” star who came out as gay in January after previously disclosing that his character in the Netflix hit series is also queer – plays into the expectations we have of these scenes.
On the subject of the casting, Schnapp gives an impressively nuanced performance in a volatile role that is both very different and oddly similar to the one his fans know him for, and manages to keep our sympathies – if not always our trust – even when he’s on his worst behavior; he also sparks a believable chemistry with Hedlund, whose role positions him as a proxy for the audience. The latter succeeds by making Ethan as much an “everyman” figure as possible for a character whose defining feature is his intellectual prowess; still, he keeps a palpable distance from the audience when it comes to his inner landscape, something that works in his favor once the story begins to sow doubt about what’s really going on.
Unfortunately, after “The Tutor” gets all its pieces in place and begins to move toward a climax and a final confrontation, it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Instead of delving deeper into the mystery it’s worked to establish, it devolves into a game of cat-and-mouse that sometimes stretches credibility a little too thin in the name of raising the stakes and ends up feeling more like a particularly dark episode of “Scooby Doo” than it does like “Strangers on a Train.” Less forgivable, perhaps, is a tendency to reveal previously withheld and unknowable key information as a device for shifting the plot – and our assumptions – in a different direction. Used once, it feels like a cheat; used repeatedly, it feels like laziness.
Of course, all this is part of the movie’s tactic to “gaslight” us so that we won’t see what’s coming. Yet somehow, we still do.
“The Tutor” does have reasons to recommend it. Besides Schnapp and Hedlund, it offers a striking, dramatic visual aesthetic and a sumptuous location setting. It also offers some food for thought by exploring certain thematic elements about narcissism and toxic masculinity, though to say more about that might constitute a spoiler.
Still, by the time it delivers its final surprise twist, it won’t be much of a surprise to most viewers; and while provocative themes might stimulate some conversation after the final credits roll, they don’t do much for creating a satisfying thriller. Or, for that matter, a scary one.
A lesbian thriller, ‘Scream’ returns, and more film, TV options for spring
A host of queer programming on tap for upcoming season
Spring is always an exciting time for queer fans of film and TV, as the entertainment industry shifts its eye to the future and begins to roll out the eagerly awaited movies and shows it has in store for us in the upcoming year. This year is no exception – but while there are several exciting titles announced for 2023’s cinematic lineup (like the Anne Hathaway-starring lesbian thriller “Eileen” and Dan Levy’s directorial film debut “Good Grief”), many of their release dates are slated for later in the year or still to be determined.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few good options for queer movie buffs looking for some “spring fresh” cinema, and the Blade has compiled a few suggestions.
The First Fallen (Digital/DVD, available now)
A Brazilian release from 2021 making its debut on US screens, this 1983-set historical drama from writer/director Rodrigo de Oliveira follows a group of small-town LGBTQ men and women as they face the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. We haven’t seen it ourselves yet, but it comes with a five-star Rotten Tomatoes rating and the subject matter strikes a deep communal chord. Johnny Massaro, Renata Carvalho, and Victor Camilio lead the cast.
Lonesome (Digital/DVD, available now)
Another import making its way to U.S. screens, this Australian Outback-meets-big-city romance from director Craig Boreham explores “sexuality, loneliness and isolation in a world that has never been more connected” through the story of a country boy (Josh Lavery) who, fleeing from small-town scandal, arrives in Sydney and meets a city lad (Daniel Gabery) with secrets and struggles of his own. In their new acquaintance, the two young men “find something they have been missing, but neither of them knows quite how to negotiate it.” We don’t want to spoil anything, but since this festival-circuit favorite was praised by reviewers for its masterful use of erotic storytelling, it’s safe to assume they figure it out.
Scream VI (In theaters March 10)
The rebooted horror franchise – originally created by queer screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who in an interview around 2021’s “Scream V” said the movies were “coded in gay survival” – picks up where it left off, as the four survivors the latest Ghostface killings leave Woodsboro behind to start a fresh chapter. Melissa Barrera, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Jenna Ortega, Hayden Panettiere, and Courteney Cox return to their roles, joined by Jack Champion, Henry Czerny, Liana Liberato, Dermot Mulroney, Devyn Nekoda, Tony Revolori, Josh Segarra, and Samara Weaving.
The Tutor (In theaters, March 24)
Recently out “Stranger Things” star Noah Schnapp hits the big screen in this eerie thriller from writer Ryan King and director Jordan Ross, in which an in-demand tutor (Garrett Hedlund) accepts a lucrative offer to take on the son of a wealthy elite family (Schnapp) as his pupil and finds himself becoming the object of an unsettling obsession – a situation that quickly escalates toward the sinister as his creepy new student threatens to tear apart the life he is building with his newly pregnant wife (Victoria Justice) before it even begins. Ekaterina Baker, Jonny Weston, Michael Aaron Milligan, Exie Booker, and Ashritha Kancharla also star.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (In theaters March 31)
Yes, the venerable RPG (that’s “role-playing game,” for the uninitiated) played on the tabletops of countless Gen X nerds is coming to the screen once again, this time as a big-budget sword-and-sorcery adventure starring Chris Pine, “Bridgerton” hunk Regé-Jean Page, bi “Fast & Furious” star Michelle Rodriguez, queer actor Justice Smith, and Hugh Grant. Planned as the ambitious launch point for a “multi-pronged” franchise that includes a graphic novel tie-in, an upcoming television spin-off, and a slate of future installments across these and other forms of media, it’s an eagerly awaited roll of the 12-sided dice in an unpredictable market already saturated with tent-pole style entertainment options. After years in development and multiple COVID-related delays, moviegoers – doubtless including millions of queer fantasy fans – will finally get to decide whether or not it was worth the gamble.
Renfield (In theaters April 14)
The renaissance of Nicolas Cage continues with another franchise-ish new action-fantasy, this one more in the in the horror vein – a vein injected with a healthy dose of humor by director Chris McKay (“The Lego Movie”) and screenwriter Ryan Ridley. Nicholas Hoult (“A Single Man,” “The Great”) stars as the title character, the long-suffering lackey of Count Dracula (Cage, in a role it was inevitable he would eventually play), who discovers an unexpected new outlook on life when he falls in love with a traffic cop (Awkwafina) in modern-day New Orleans. Ben Schwartz and Adrian Martinez round out the cast of what looks to be a highly entertaining tall-tale blend of gothic vampire camp and quirky comedic reinvention. As for the LGBTQ connection, well, “Dracula” author Bram Stoker was reputedly queer, and that’s a good enough excuse to give this promising romp a chance.
Little Richard: I Am Everything (In theaters and VOD April 21)
A must-see for fans of both documentaries and classic rock ’n roll, not to mention anyone interested in the story of a unique individual charting his own course of self-expression in a world that wasn’t ready for what he wanted to be, this richly illuminated film profile from director Lisa Cortés was the opening night documentary selection at this year’s Sundance Festival. Framed as a story of “the Black queer origins of rock ’n roll,” it aims to dismantle “the whitewashed canon of American pop music” by positioning its titular subject – whose “real” name was Richard Penniman – as an innovator who forever shaped the genre with his irresistibly flamboyant style and persona. Offering a wealth of archive and performance footage alongside interviews with family, musicians, and cutting-edge Black and queer scholars, the film brings us into an icon’s complicated inner world, “unspooling” his life story with a comprehensive sense of scope and a keen eye for important detail.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (In theaters April 28)
Fifty-three years after its publication, Judy Blume’s iconic piece of YA fiction comes to the screen for the first time in this adaptation from writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig starring Rachel McAdams and featuring Abby Ryder Fortson as the title character – a sixth-grader who moves to a New Jersey suburb from New York City with her mixed-faith parents (one Christian, one Jewish), prompting her to go on a coming-of-age quest for her religious identity. A touchstone for generations of young readers, the original novel has been a perennial source of controversy – not only does it depict a child allowed the freedom to choose their own religious beliefs, it contains frank discussions of “taboo” issues relatable to young teen girls, like menstruation, bras, and boys. Naturally, that means it has been included, along with other classic titles from among Blume’s work, on countless lists of “banned books” across the five decades since it first saw print. That is more than enough reason to go out and support this female-led screen adaptation with your box office dollars, as far as we’re concerned.
When it comes to the small screen, spring 2023 brings not as many new shows of queer interest as it does the return of queer favorites we’re already hooked on, like the second seasons of both Showtime’s grim-but-gripping girl scout survival series Yellowjackets (March 24) and HBO’s sweet-and-gentle Somebody Somewhere (April 23). As with the movies, there are numerous upcoming titles that pique our interest, but many of them have yet to announce a premiere date. We’ll include the most enticing of those in our list of new TV series below, so you’ll know to watch for them, but keep in mind some or all of them may not come until later in the year.
Daisy Jones & the Six (Prime Video, now streaming)
Prime Video just dropped is this 10-episode limited series adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel about the rise and fall of a fictional rock group in the Los Angeles music scene of the 1970s, which frames its profile of the Fleetwood Mac-inspired titular band in a pseudo-documentary style and tracks the reasons behind their break-up at the height of their worldwide fame. Offering an attractive cast led by Riley Keogh, Sam Clafln, Camila Morrone, Suki Waterhouse, Will Harrison, Josh Whitehouse, and Timothy Olyphant, and an iconic period setting and subject matter guaranteed to inspire some fabulous costumes, if nothing else, this one has sufficient queer appeal to make our list.
Swarm (Prime Video, March 17)
Speaking of fictional re-imaginings of real-life music icons, multi-hyphenate “Atlanta” creator Donald Glover and playwright/screenwriter Janine Nabers offer up this darkly satirical horror series about fan obsession, centered on a young woman named Dre (Dominique Fishback) who goes to deadly extremes in her “stan-dom” of a certain pop star. No, the star in question isn’t Beyoncé, but her fanbase calls itself “the Swarm,” so you can draw your own conclusions from that. It’s a provocative premise that’s bound to ruffle some feathers, but that’s precisely what gives co-creator Glover his well-deserved reputation for delivering edgy, genre-defying content. All we can say is that if it’s half as unnervingly delightful as the first two seasons of “Atlanta,” we’re on board. Chloe Bailey, Damson Idris, Rickey Thompson, Paris Jackson, Rory Culkin, Kiersey Clemons, and Byron Bowers also star.
Marriage of Inconvenience (Dekkoo, April 6)
Subscribers to gay male-targeted streaming service Dekkoo can look forward to a romantic comedy described as “a 21st century gay version of ‘The Odd Couple’” centered on two mismatched strangers who enter a witness protection program and must pretend to be happily married to each other to keep their identities hidden from the people who want them dead. Series writer/creator Jason T. Gaffney stars as a messy, street-smart dropout with anger issues opposite David Allen Singletary as an even-tempered English professor conditioned to living an orderly, carefully structured life. They have nothing in common and they can’t stand each other, but at least they’re both gay – which, as we all know, is still no guarantee they’ll be able to find common ground. With a clearly campy premise like this, it should still be fun to watch them try.
Dead Ringers (Prime Video, April 21)
Rachel Weisz does double duty in this reimagined expansion of director David Cronenberg’s classic 1988 thriller about identical twin gynecologists who dupe unsuspecting patients into participating in their perverse sexual fantasies. The twist? While Cronenberg’s film featured a pair of male siblings, this one flips the gender of its creepy twins – and in so doing, opens up a whole plethora of queer possibilities to be explored. As anyone familiar with the original already knows, it’s a story full of twisted psychology and grotesque body horror, not for the faint of heart. We can’t wait.
Love & Death (HBO Max, April 27)
Queer fan favorite Elizabeth Olsen (“WandaVision”) stars in this true crime miniseries about real-life “good Christian” Texas housewife Candy Montgomery, who claimed self-defense at her murder trial after taking an axe to the wife of a man with whom she was having an extramarital affair. The lurid story has already been told (in last year’s “Candy,” with Jessica Biel as Montgomery), but with writer/producer David E. Kelley – whose back catalogue includes a host of successful shows from “Doogie Howser, MD” to “Big Little Lies” – behind it, we can be sure that this version will have a unique quality of its own. Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad,” “The Power of the Dog”) co-stars as the other half of Candy’s illicit and ill-fated romance, with Lily Rabe as his unfortunate wife; Parick Fugit, Elizabeth Marvel, Tom Pelphrey, Krysten Ritter, and Beth Broderick also star. In this case, perhaps, the queer appeal comes from the irony of watching supposed “good Christian” types engage in the kind of depraved and detrimental behavior they regularly condemn everyone else for – and that’s good enough for us.
As for the shows with launch dates still TBD, the standouts include:
The Idol (HBO) – a buzzy series starring Lily-Rose Depp as an aspiring pop star and Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye as the self-help guru with whom she becomes involved. Supporting players include Dan Levy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Hank Azaria, and musicians Troye Sivan and Moses Sumney.
Ripley (Showtime) – a limited series adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with out Irish actor Andrew Scott as its charming-but-sociopathic anti-hero; likely to bring the original story’s gay subtext to the screen much more directly than the 1999 film adaptation starring Matt Damon, it also stars Johnny Flynn and Dakota Fanning.
Fellow Travelers (Showtime) – Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey star in this adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s book about two men who begin a volatile clandestine romance while working for the government during the 1950s McCarthy era. Allison Williams also stars.
Glamorous (Netflix) – Created by Jordon Nardino (“Star Trek: Discovery”) and Damon Wayans Jr., this Brooklyn-set drama centers on a gender-non-conforming youth (Miss Benny) who falls under the wing of a high-fashion makeup mogul (Kim Cattrall), and features guest stars like Matt Rogers, Joel Kim Booster, and Monét X Change. Sounds fabulous.
‘Everything’ lands queer endorsement as movie of the year
Dorian Awards add to momentum for breakout film as Oscars near
For Oscar handicappers – or anyone else who loves movies and enjoys playing the yearly game of picking favorites and predicting winners during Hollywood’s glitzy awards season – last weekend’s presentation of the Screen Actors Guild Awards was a crucial event.
As the last “big” awards ceremony before Academy Award night (which takes place this year on March 12), the SAG Awards’ film category winners are often seen as a clear indicator of which films and performers have the momentum to win there, too. It’s not surprising they should be seen as significant, but this year, thanks to some history-making wins (including firsts for Asian-American talent and a single movie’s sweep of all but two of the film categories), there was even more reason to pay attention.
SAG was not the only organization to bestow its film awards last week, however. Though they received less fanfare, the 14th Annual Dorian Awards – announced on Feb. 23 by GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics – offered a slate of winners that reflected a queer eye on the films of 2022; and while they might not be as much a barometer for the tastes and attitudes of the industry insiders who vote for the big film awards, it should be noted that its choices align surprisingly often with those of SAG and the rest of mainstream Hollywood.
That’s partly because, although they do include a handful of LGBTQ-specific categories, the Dorians don’t just honor queer films. GALECA’s voters – a group of more than 400 professional queer entertainment critics, journalists, and media icons – look at the same movies as their straight colleagues; they present the Dorians (named as a nod to iconic queer writer Oscar Wilde and his most famous literary creation) as a way “to remind bigots, bullies and our own communities that the world often looks to the Q+ eye for unique and powerful entertainment,” and to ensure that a queer perspective is represented amid Hollywood’s yearly bestowal of honors. While there have been notable divergences, such as the occasional queer title like “Carol” or “Call Me By Your Name” supplanting their more hetero-friendly competitors for Film of the Year, recent Dorian honors have tended more to mirror the mainstream consensus than defy it.
This year is no exception. “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the genre-splicing serio-comic sci-fi sleeper whose jaw-dropping sweep at the SAG show has made a similar triumph at the Oscars feel all but inevitable, also scored a lion’s share of honors from the Dorians, winning in seven of its nine nominated categories – even achieving the triple feat of being chosen as Best Film, Best LGBTQ Film and Most Visually Striking Film. For Lead Film Performance – all nominees, regardless of gender, vie for a single award in the each of the two acting categories – Yeoh, long embraced by queer fans, edged out not only Blanchett but favored male competitors like SAG winner Brendan Fraser and Golden Globe winners Colin Farrell and Austin Butler, while co-star Ke Huy Quan continued his inspiring victory lap by being chosen for Supporting Film Performance. Rounding out their movie’s tally, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert won in both the Director and Screenplay categories. As a bonus, while technically awarded for “EEAAO,” Yeoh was also the winner of the Wilde Artist Award, a special Dorian given yearly “to a truly groundbreaking force in film, theater and/or television,” and fellow cast member Stephanie Hsu was named as Rising Star of the Year – honors almost certainly fueled by their work in “EEAAO.”
In other categories:
The UK import “Aftersun,” Charlotte Wells’ thoughtful father-daughter tearjerker starring Paul Mescal, which also is also nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars, was awarded the Dorian for Best “Unsung” Film.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” director Laura Poitras’ searing documentary about famed bisexual photographer Nan Goldin and her mission to shame the Sackler Big Pharma dynasty for profiteering on America’s opioid crisis, took both Best Documentary and Best LGBTQ Documentary; it’s also Oscar-nominated as Best Feature Documentary, the only queer-related doc to have made the cut there.
In the Best Animated Film category, the Dorians went against the tide by choosing “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the charming and deceptively absurd stop-motion “mockumentary” adapted from a widely popular series of YouTube shorts, over “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio.” Both films are competing at the Oscars, as well.
For Best Non-English Language Film, the Dorians did what the Oscars cannot by picking “RRR” – the epic Telugu-language musical adventure fantasy about two South Indian rebels fighting to push British colonials from their homeland in the 1920s, rendered ineligible for the Academy’s equivalent category by India’s failure to submit it as the country’s official entry for consideration as Best International Feature. The film, a worldwide box office sensation from S.S. Rajamouli (India’s most commercially successful director), did snag an Oscar nomination in the Best Song category for “Naatu Naatu.”
Though “Tár” – a critically acclaimed but divisive cinematic portrait of a fictional lesbian symphony conductor accused of serial sexual misconduct in the workplace – ended up as an also-ran in most of its nominated categories, it didn’t go away empty-handed; composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, also nominated for her work on “Women Talking,” took home the award for Best Score. A former Oscar winner (for 2019’s “Joker”), she failed to earn an Academy nomination this year for either film.
In a category unique to the Dorians, the cheeky horror prequel “Pearl,” which starred co-writer Mia Goth as an ax-wielding wannabe in 1918 Texas, took the double-edged honor of Campiest Film of the Year. Other nominees included “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” as well as the aforementioned “RRR.”
Finally, a relatively new special Dorian honor, the GALECA LGBTQIA+ Film Trailblazer Award, went to nonbinary actor-singer Janelle Monáe (also a nominee for Best Supporting Performance for “Glass Onion”), whose win puts her in the company of groundbreaking LGBTQ directors Isabel Sandoval and Pedro Almodóvar, both former winners, as a queer pioneer in the ever-evolving cinematic medium.
As for how much influence the Dorians might have on Oscar voters, even most of the GALECA membership would likely say “not much.” That’s not the point, however; indeed, the increasingly frequent parallel between their picks and those of their mainstream compatriots might well be better interpreted as a reminder of the LGBTQ community’s role as “tastemakers” for the wider world. We’ve always been there, even when we were kept out of sight, helping to shape the aesthetic that dominates popular culture, and the fact that our tastes – as filtered through the representative cross-section of GALECA’s members, at least – are now so often represented in the content that achieves the industry’s highest honors is cause enough to celebrate.
As GALECA Executive Director John Griffiths puts it, “No matter what’s going on in the mind of a certain Florida governor and his ilk, the best movies, and TV too, will only continue to reflect what’s going on in the real world—and parallel ones too. Looking at our nominees and winners, you can let out a nice, deep breath.”
The complete list of Dorian winners and nominees is below:
Film of the Year
The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight)
Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
The Fabelmans (Universal)
Tár (Focus Features)
LGBTQ Film of the Year
Benediction (Roadside Attractions)
Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
The Inspection (A24)
Tár (Focus Features)
Director of the Year
Todd Field, Tár (Focus Features)
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight)
Sarah Polley, Women Talking (United Artists)
Charlotte Wells, Aftersun (A24)
Screenplay of the Year
Todd Field, Tár (Focus Features)
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight)
Sarah Polley, Women Talking (United Artists)
Charlotte Wells, Aftersun (A24)
Non-English Language Film of the Year
All Quiet on the Western Front (Netflix, Amusement Park)
Decision to Leave (Mubi, CJ Entertainment)
EO (Sideshow, Janus Films)
RRR (DVV Entertainment, Variance Films) – WINNER
Unsung Film of the Year (To an exceptional movie worthy of greater attention)
Aftersun (A24) – WINNER
After Yang (A24)
Benediction (Roadside Attractions)
The Eternal Daughter (A24)
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Searchlight)
The Menu (Searchlight)
Emily the Criminal (Vertical/Roadside Attractions)
Film Performance of the Year
Cate Blanchett, Tár (Focus Features)
Austin Butler, Elvis (Warner Bros.)
Viola Davis, The Woman King (Sony)
Danielle Deadwyler, Till (United Artists)
Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight)
Brendan Fraser, The Whale (A24)
Mia Goth, Pearl (A24)
Paul Mescal, Aftersun (A24)
Jeremy Pope, The Inspection (A24)
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
Supporting Film Performance of the Year
Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Disney, Marvel)
Hong Chau, The Whale (A24)
Jaime Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24)
Dolly De Leon, Triangle of Sadness (Neon)
Nina Hoss, Tár (Focus Features)
Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24)
Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight)
Janelle Monáe, Glass Onion: Knives Out (Netflix)
Keke Palmer, Nope (Universal)
Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
Documentary of the Year
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Neon) – WINNER
Fire of Love (Neon, National Geographic)
Good Night Oppy (Amazon Studios)
Moonage Daydream (Neon)
Navalny (Warner Bros.)
LGBTQ Documentary of the Year
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Neon) – WINNER
Framing Agnes (Kino Lorber)
Moonage Daydream (Neon)
Nelly & Nadine (Wolfe Releasing)
Animated Film of the Year
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Netflix)
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (A24) – WINNER
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (DreamWorks, Universal)
Turning Red (Disney, Pixar)
Wendell & Wild (Netflix)
Film Music of the Year
Babylon – score by Justin Hurvitz (Paramount)
Elvis – score and music production by Elliott Wheeler; the music of Elvis Presley; various artists (Warner Bros.)
RRR – score by M.M. Keeravani (DVV Entertainment, Variance Films)
Tár – score and curation by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Focus Features) – WINNER
Women Talking – score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (United Artists)
Visually Striking Film of the Year
Avatar: The Way of Water (20th Century)
Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24) – WINNER
RRR (DVV Entertainment, Variance Films)
Campiest Flick of the Year
Bodies Bodies Bodies (A24)
Elvis (Warner Bros.)
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix)
Pearl (A24) – WINNER
RRR (DVV Entertainment, Variance Films)
Rising Star Award
Stephanie Hsu – WINNER
Wilde Artist Award
To a truly groundbreaking force in film, theater and/or television
Michelle Yeoh – WINNER
GALECA LGBTQIA+ Film Trailblazer Award
Goldin doc captures both ‘Beauty’ and ‘Bloodshed’
Laura Poitras produced and directed Oscar-nominated documentary
As the yearly Hollywood awards cycle heads into its final weeks before culminating with the Oscars on March 12, most of the public attention is — as always — focused on the movies in the so-called “major” categories, while the ones in the others are, if not completely overlooked, placed lower on the priority list for film fans looking to catch up on all the nominees before the big night.
As the shrewdest fans know, of course, some of the best filmmaking often goes unsung because it happens in the kind of films that win awards in categories deemed irrelevant by most of the people in the mainstream. Unfortunately, that description most frequently seems to apply to documentaries — and this year, a standout among the crop of potential Oscar winners comes from within that eternally underappreciated genre.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, producer/director Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a movie that tells two stories. In part, it’s a chronicle of the remarkable personal history of photographer and artist Nan Goldin, who rose to prominence in the “respectable” art world through the images that she took of herself and her friends — often in candidly intimate situations — in the post-Stonewall queer underground of ‘70s and ‘80s lower Manhattan; told in Goldin’s voice and through her own vast archive of images, it charts her life and career from emotionally traumatic childhood to esteemed artist, while reminding us that she was as much a participant in the heady lifestyle she documented as she was a witness.
While Goldin’s life and career would be more than ample as the singular focus of a documentary, though, Poitras’ movie has an even bigger purpose in mind. In service of that goal, it interweaves its subject’s personal narrative around the saga of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) — an organization she founded in 2017 after revealing she was in recovery from an addiction to prescribed opioids which almost led to her death from an overdose of fentanyl — and its high-profile protest campaign against the Sackler family, a billionaire pharmaceutical dynasty known internationally for its generous art patronage, who through its company Purdue Pharma were principle architects of America’s staggering opioid crisis. Moving back and forth between these two threads throughout the film, Poitras frames Goldin’s struggle to hold the Sacklers accountable within the context of the formative life experiences that shaped her into an activist, while making sure to give her subject due acknowledgment for the then-shocking celebration of queer life and sexuality in her work at a time when such things were still seen through the cold filter of anthropological distance or simply being denounced outright for violating social taboos.
As to that, many viewers will undoubtedly be drawn to “Bloodshed” by the prospect of revisiting the fabled era of Goldin’s early heyday through her up-close-and-personal pictures and footage, and they will not be disappointed. The film includes plenty of both, illuminated by the artist as she recounts the memories behind them; it offers poignant glimpses at a few future icons and fallen stars (lost-but-not-forgotten queer icons from her circle, like Cookie Mueller and David Wojnarowicz, are among those lovingly profiled by Goldin as she narrates her reminiscences), gives us an inside look at a seminal time and place in counterculture history, tantalizes us with provocative images of a sexually liberated lifestyle and throws us into the front lines of AIDS activism and the political battle over government funding of the NEA.
For those more interested in direct biography, there is also copious material on Goldin’s personal life. These sequences cover her memories of a dysfunctional childhood growing up with an older sister who would later die by suicide, her delinquent youth in and out of foster homes, her battery at the hands of a jealous lover, the horror of watching her community ravaged by AIDS while the rest of the world stood by and watched, and the crushing devastation of her opioid addiction.
Yet while these various parts of Goldin’s story may carry weight of their own, “Bloodshed” ultimately transfers it all into its saga about her effort to exact palpable retribution against the Sacklers — something her position as a world-renowned artist made her uniquely situated to do. Following her organization through a series of brilliantly orchestrated actions in which — borrowing a page from ACT UP — they staged dramatic protests at museums who had taken donations from the disgraced philanthropic dynasty, the movie deploys footage from these events to capture the raw sense of danger experienced within them with the kind of thrilling immediacy unachievable through journalistic observation or dramatic recreation. It’s this Robin Hood-esque story of taking back from the rich and amoral that drives Poitras’ movie and gives it an emotional structure, making it more than just another profile of an influential artist.
That doesn’t mean it relegates Goldin’s work as a photographer into the background. On the contrary, the bulk of the imagery we see comes from Goldin herself; even the footage of the protests was shot by P.A.I.N. for documentary purposes before Poitras had even become involved. Still, the filmmaker deserves full credit for assembling these photos and home movies into a finished product, and while it’s clear that “Bloodshed” is the result of intense collaboration between documentarian and subject, it’s also clear that her understanding of the material and her nuance in presenting it are essential elements in creating the cumulative power— and the surprising sense of urgency — that it delivers.
As for her subject, Goldin’s importance as both an artist and as activist come across plainly, but those were never in doubt. The film’s biggest surprise, perhaps, is the compassion visible at the heart of her activism, manifesting through her desire to use the privilege and influence her art has given her to help balance the scales between the powerful elite and the marginalized masses they exploit — a compassion reflected even in the revelation of her former life as a sex worker, which she discusses publicly for the first time here out of solidarity with other sex workers and to help reduce the stigma around sex work.
While juggling two separate-but-complementary stories might come at the risk of a disjointed focus, “Bloodshed,” thanks to Poitras’ seemingly symbiotic alignment with her subject’s aesthetic and sympathies, manages to weave its dual threads together in a way which not only makes sense, but uses them in concert to convey a fiercely radical worldview — one which resonates deeply in a contemporary social environment not too different from the one in which Goldin and her fellow sexual “outlaws” were flaunting their defiance of repressive, bigoted cultural norms not just in their work but in their everyday lives. Now, as then, a younger generation confronted with unbridled corporate greed and widening economic inequity, not to mention a conservative strategy of reverse cultural engineering through backlash and legislation, has been triggered to reevaluate its priorities.
It’s not surprising. After all, as Goldin says in the film, “When you think of the profit off people’s pain, you can only be furious about it.”
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